When I read Jackson Hole Airport Board President Jerry Blann’s Guest Column in last week’s News&Guide, it was clear that on April 24 the board would vote to permit Wind River Aviation to base its operation at the airport, which is located inside Grand Teton National Park. Essentially he was telling the community the board could do nothing due to Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
It struck me as a bit ironic. Mr. Blann and perhaps others on the board and some who previously served on it certainly never had a problem vigorously challenging various federal agencies and members of Congress when they had individually disagreed with federal regulations or Congressional actions.
The FAA, like any federal agency, is not omnipotent. It can be challenged for good cause. Why is this board, which has heard overwhelming opposition to allowing a scenic heli-tour operation to be based at the airport, so unwilling to challenge the FAA and to work with the Wyoming congressional delegation to either pass legislation or direct the FAA to prohibit heli tours? The board has previously worked proactively with the Wyoming delegation to receive taxpayer-funded FAA grants or other legislation beneficial to the airport.
During the meeting the board repeatedly referenced the FAA grants awarded to the airport. The grants are certainly important, but it is worth remembering those grants are federal taxpayer money, not FAA magic money. We citizens fund those grants. The FAA can and should be questioned and challenged. I hope the Wyoming congressional delegation will do just that.
And while the airport staff and board may have attempted in different ways to provide the public with opportunities to participate in the public process, the information to the public was at best confusing and difficult to find. The airport press release went so far as to suggest the board’s preferred method to receive public comment. That is not an acceptable way to conduct public participation and has biased the entire public process.
The airport board and staff have expressed their surprise at how many letters and public responses they received, more than any issue the airport has engaged in. That should have alerted them to the need to facilitate the clearest set of public messages about what the airport board was considering and what authorities the board has to approve, deny or regulate the heli-tour permit.
Instead, it wasn’t until the early portion of Friday’s board meeting when Mike Morgan, the airport’s legal counsel, read the limits and outlined the authorities of the airport board. All of that information should have been clearly presented to the public before beginning the public participation process weeks ago.
So from a standpoint of a meaningful public information campaign and ensuing public process, this was a failure and an insult to the community. The board may have potentially left itself open to legal challenges for stymieing public comment by individuals.
That was made doubly worse since airport board ignored the pleas of the community, including from local elected officials, to postpone Friday’s meeting until people could attend in person and offer their own comments after the COVID-19 emergency lessened.
A further shocking revelation came before Friday’s board meeting began when Mr. Blann asked Mr. Chambers if he had read the public comments and Mr. Chambers said yes. Why was the heli-tour applicant given the opportunity to read the public comments and yet the airport did not post those comments on its website for all of the public to read as well? And why isn’t the application for the heli-tour on the airport website? Transparency of all relevant information is critical in any public participation process.
At the start of the meeting the board gave local elected officials an opportunity to comment, along with a few comments from Mr. Chambers. That was followed by 6 1/2 hours of a rotation of airport staff reading, in a mind-numbing manner, the hundreds of public comments, while keeping the public waiting until 2:30 p.m. to finally be allowed to offer live comments via WebEx audio, limited to just two minutes per person.
Another irony: The airport promotes its carbon offset program throughout its website and on other platforms. I applaud those efforts, but it is incongruous to tout the carbon offset program while being unwilling to deny the heli-tours a base at Jackson Hole Airport. Heli-tours are an intense consumer of fossil fuels and will cancel out any progress on carbon offsets and other environmentally responsible airport initiatives.
As to learning important safety lessons: Before the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, federal regulatory agencies deemed the BP drilling operation “safe,” just as the FAA deems the Wind River Aviation R44 helicopter “safe.” I was dispatched to Louisiana as part of the Deepwater Horizon response for the Interior Department and saw firsthand and in real time the tragedy unfold. A tragedy that with the benefit of hindsight and the subsequent investigation could have been prevented.
Do we need Wind River Aviation’s R44 helicopter to have a tragedy before its safety record is reevaluated and better regulated by the FAA?
If Wind River’s R44 has a crash, people will likely die and the risk of an uncontrolled wildfire is great. There may be no emergency responders or firefighters available to respond. The firefighting community throughout the country is gravely concerned about the 2020 wildland fire season, made more dangerous due to COVID-19.
Mr. Chambers knows the community overwhelmingly opposes his heli-tour operation. Yet despite that, he moves forward with total disregard for this community located at the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, amid two iconic national parks and a national forest that collectively generate billions of dollars annually for the Wyoming economy.
Together this community can still stop these dangerous and obtrusive heli-tours. Hundreds intend to work to see heli-tours prohibited at Jackson Hole Airport.